Publication 1135

Vanderstraeten R. (2005) System and environment: Notes on the autopoiesis of modern society. Systems Research & Behavioral Science 22: 471–481. Fulltext at
To describe the basic characteristics of modern society, two levels should be distinguished, viz. the structural and the cultural level. According to the late Talcott Parsons, the dominant value pattern of modern society is the cultural pattern of instrumental activism. What is valued in modern society is not passive adjustment to the exigencies of the environment, but increasing the freedom of action within the environment, and ultimately control over the environment. It is no longer adaptation to the environment, but adaptation of the environment to social needs. On the structural level, new patterns of societal differentiation have emerged. According to Niklas Luhmann, the pattern which characterizes modern society is one of functional differentiation. Functional subsystems impose their particular perspective on the world. The environment is perceived through different lenses (e.g., through a political, legal, economic, educational, or scientific lens). These different perceptions are incommensurable. As a consequence, society cannot control its overall impact on the environment. Its structural and cultural characteristics limit its sensitivity vis-à-vis the environment. Relevance: This paper provides an overview of Niklas Luhmann’s analysis of the autopoietic autonomy of the societal system.

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